Comparing the characteristics of Greek, English and Chinese

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Comparing the characteristics of Greek, English and Chinese

Postby Michael Christensen » July 29th, 2011, 5:28 am

In comparing the three languages, Greek, English and Chinese, I find that they all have distinct characteristics and advantages: Greek appears to be highly specific and precise in its grammar – e.g. tense, case, gender, number, etc., whereas Chinese is often very unspecific in gender and number and doesn't even have tense or case. English seems to be somewhere in between, however I assume it is closer to Greek than it is to Chinese. I don't think that one language is better than the others, they are simply very different – and this fact reveals the very different mindset underlying the respective cultures. It would probably be very interesting to compare Greek and Chinese philosophy and research how the differences in thinking relate to the differences in language (does someone know of a study that has been done on this topic?).

Furthermore, I find that the respective writing systems are quite well-adjusted to the characteristics of the different languages: the economy, simplicity and relative ambiguity of Chinese grammar would not work well if written using Greek letters (and poetry or short three/four word aphorisms would become completely impossible). Chinese would probably have to acquire a more complex grammar and phonology in order to avoid too much ambiguity – the so-called "simplification" would bring about greater complexities and difficulties in other areas. Conversely, if one tried to write Greek using Chinese characters, the writing would become extremely tedious because of the numerous particles that would necessarily have to be added to display case endings, tense, mood, voice, etc. As a result, many of the case endings, etc. would be dropped, resulting in a simpler grammar.


Though each language may have weaknesses, it would be deplorable to try to get rid of the "weaknesses" and thereby lose the distinct advantages. Why, if we started writing "fotograf" instead of "photograph", it might "simplify" the spelling, but it would destroy the distinct advantage that the etymological origins (in this case it obviously comes from Greek) have left their traces in the English spelling.

If Chinese used only phonetic symbols instead of visual symbols (which, in their traditional form have been used with basically little or no significant changes for approximately two thousand years, which suggests that the system was rather effective), the distinct advantage of seeing visual connections and associations between different words would be lost, e.g. 林(forest), 森(another word for forest, probably suggesting thick vegetation), 果(fruit), 樹(tree), 李(plum), 枝(branch of a tree), 桃(peach), 桑(mulberry tree), even 椅(chair) and 桌(table) – all contain the symbol 木, meaning tree or, in a wider sense, wood (tables and chairs generally used to be made of wood and often still are). This visual system additionally has the advantage that one can often guess the approximate meaning of an unknown character from its visual appearance.

If Greek had not posessed the complex grammatical system it did, would the philosophers as well as the theologian Paul have been able to develop and express the thoughts they did – to the extent they did?
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Re: Comparing the characteristics of Greek, English and Chin

Postby MAubrey » August 1st, 2011, 4:52 pm

Michael Christensen wrote:If Greek had not posessed the complex grammatical system it did, would the philosophers as well as the theologian Paul have been able to develop and express the thoughts they did – to the extent they did?


Yes. Grammatical systems and the cognitive abilities of individual humans have no proven relationship. There is a relationship between culture and language, no doubt. The question of the philosophical development has far more to do with culture than it does language--to the extent that those can be differentiated. That is to say, there is no reason why a language with a "simpler" grammatical system couldn't develop a complex and sophisticated culture. Language and culture are closely linked, but the sophistication of the culture and the complexity of the language are not linked.
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Canada Institute of Linguistics & Trinity Western University Graduate School
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Re: Comparing the characteristics of Greek, English and Chin

Postby Michael Christensen » August 2nd, 2011, 1:04 pm

I see – I guess I speculated too far… However, the way I phrased the question before probably was misleading as well: I didn't mean to say that a language with a simpler grammatical system would cause people's thought to be on an inferior level, but I thought that complexity in a certain area of the language might reveal a "specialization" or an emphasis on a certain mode of thought. My basic idea was that Greek might tend to emphasize a more "rational", "logical" mode of thought, whereas Chinese might tend to emphasize a more "associational" or "global" mode of thinking – sort of like the so-called "left" and "right" brain hemispheres people often talk about (though these terms might not be neurologically accurate). Of course, this is highly speculative and is also undoubtedly a gross oversimplification – but I was wondering whether there might be something to it.

Aside from that, I also wondered why complexity develops in certain areas of a language in the first place: for example, if a certain Innuit language has a dozen or so different words for snow (in other words, it has a more complex vocabularly in a certain area), is that perhaps because it helps the people to differentiate between different types of snow more easily and more accurately and definitely – rather than using a whole sentence to describe what kind of snow they mean (with a greater possibility of being misunderstood), they can use just one word?

Might complexity therefore develop in a certain area of a language because it has certain advantages to the speakers/writers, i.e. facilitates certain modes of expression or areas of thought that otherwise would be more difficult or "roundabout" to put into words? Of course, the reverse of complexity certainly must have advantages as well: e.g. if a language uses the same word for a variety of different things in different contexts, it might facilitate a mental connection (or sense of unity) between things or concepts that perhaps could seem more disparate and unrelated to someone who doesn't speak that language (I can imagine that such issues cause a lot of problems in translation -- e.g. comparing different bible translations has given me an idea of the enormous difficulties there must be)...

Much speculation -- but might there be something to it, after all?
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Re: Comparing the characteristics of Greek, English and Chin

Postby Fortigurn » August 4th, 2011, 9:41 am

I'll reply here to your previous posts in the other thread, to save cluttering it up and to keep the discussion in one place.

Michael Christensen wrote:I doubt that a person who just finished grade school could match the literacy of a college student – in any language.


Certainly, that's not in dispute. The point is that learning a phonetic script, people wouldn't have to spend 15 years learning to read. Try and offer people the choice of 15 years of reading to obtain functional literacy or five years, and see how many people choose 15 years over 5.

Wouldn't most children choose to spend less time and effort on learning if they weren't "forced" to?


Well yes, but that wasn't the point either. If gaining fluency in one's native language (an essential social skill), is a matter of 5 years or 15 years, which do you think is the more rational approach?

Furthermore, just "reading" isn't enough anyway: if someone can read and pronounce a text from the Greek NT, it doesn't mean he/she will understand it: in order to understand, one will have to do a lot more study in the area of semantics and syntax – and that, I'm sure, takes quite a bit of time.


Absolutely, this isn't in dispute.

Anyway, it's too bad you don't like Chinese writing – I like it: in fact, my reading comprehension skills are considerably better than my listening comprehension skills, because the visual representation of the Chinese language happens to contain a lot more meaningful information than its sounds. But I guess the writing system suits people best that like to think in pictures and associations like me – it's not everyone's cup of tea.


It's not that I don't like Chinese writing. On the contrary, I find it aesthetically attractive, I'm always pleased when I can write it legibly by hand, and I appreciate the speed at which a fluent reader can parse a text. Other than that, I have no feelings about it one way or another. Considering it objectively of course it's an extremely clumsy method of written communication. Let's not perpetuate any myths about the 'meaningful information' which Chinese characters contain. The vast majority of them do not contain any meaningful information other than an arbitrarily assigned semantic value, which cannot be logically or systematically derived from the character. All the 'pictures and associations' are simply ad hoc mnemonics which have accumulated over the years as people have sought to systematize the learning of a character system which has no fundamental organization, nor any consistent correlation between symbol and semantic meaning.

Michael Christensen wrote:Actually, if you take a look at the three following links, you might see that Chinese writing isn't nearly as complicated and difficult to learn as most people tend to think:


I've been learning Chinese for around three years. I'm very well aware of just how complicated and difficult to learn it is. A learner of the language cannot derive reliably the meaning of the semantic phonetic compounds which make up the vast majority of the characters in the writing system; if I show you a character you don't know, there is no system you can use to derive reliably what it means, or even how to pronounce it. This is made even more difficult due to the fact that Chinese grammar is so context dependent, so a reader needs to understand more of the sentence in order to understand individual words, than is necessary in English.

Michael Christensen wrote:True, it is -- and writing it only phonetically without the characters would render it incomprehensible :(


:o I have a phonetically printed copy of 三字經. It's perfectly comprehensible. Reading 三字經 using the phonetic alphabet is how the kindergartners first learn it. To say that it's incomprehensible when written phonetically is simply not true.

Michael Christensen wrote:I'm sorry for the "brief" interlude -- though I should make it clear that I only started it because I find it extremely insulting to denounce another culture's language or writing as "archaic" and "primitive"


I don't believe anyone said it was primitive. I did refer to the writing system as archaic. Which part of the following definition of 'archaic' do you think doesn't apply here?

archaic /ɑːˈkeɪɪk/
■ adjective very old or old-fashioned.
▶ (of language) used to give an old-fashioned flavour.
▶ belonging to an early period of art or culture.
– DERIVATIVES archaically adverb
– ORIGIN 19th century: from French archaïque, from Greek arkhaikos, from arkhaios (see ARCHAISM).

Soanes, C., & Stevenson, A. (2004). Concise Oxford English dictionary (11th ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.


The real issue here is that you think such a designation is 'extremely insulting', and I don't, nor am I aiming to 'denounce' any language. These emotive terms simply don't belong in a discussion of linguistic facts. I'm looking at language as a communication tool, without any emotional investment or personal agenda to defend or promote (see McWhorter's excellent book for a great read on the subject of language and how linguists actually view, compare, and assess different languages). I have a lot to say about English which you may consider 'extremely insulting', but which to my mind certainly doesn't merit any emotive descriptions at all. My views on language have been changed dramatically not only through the process of learning a living language (Chinese), but also in teaching a living language (English). Looking at English objectively, as a communication tool, and teaching it to others, it's not difficult to see how it could be made a great deal more efficient. The more I teach it, the more I want to revise it.

It's a fact that English grammar is a clumsy and ad hoc bastard child of linguistic collision (in the original sense of the word 'bastard'), and it wouldn't hurt us in the least to take the axe to it and remove the inconsistencies, multiple redundancies, archaisms, and inefficiencies. It's a communication tool, and should be optimized for communication, not frozen in some arbitrary position for the purpose of cultural preservation; after all, it never has been frozen before, so why should we stop changing it now? Can you think of anyone who would possibly argue that we should make English grammar like classical Greek grammar? I sincerely doubt it, because we know that anyone actually sitting down to write an effective communication tool wouldn't come up with anything which looks like classical Greek, and because the grammar we use in English is already more efficient than the grammar of Classical Greek; there's no way you could persuade people to use a less efficient method.

Michael Christensen wrote:In comparing the three languages, Greek, English and Chinese, I find that they all have distinct characteristics and advantages: Greek appears to be highly specific and precise in its grammar – e.g. tense, case, gender, number, etc., whereas Chinese is often very unspecific in gender and number and doesn't even have tense or case.


:D I used to think Greek was highly specific and precise in its grammar, until I started studying it and discovered that due to the massive over-duplication of endings, and the unnecessarily complicated grammatical system, it ends up not being as specific as I expected it to be. Unsurprisingly, I also discovered that debates still rage over the precise meaning of scores of classical and New Testament passages, because of ambiguities inherent to the grammar. Conversely, when I started learning Chinese I was told it doesn't have tenses or cases. This turned out to be untrue. It doesn't have verb conjugations or noun declensions, but it does have tenses, and although it doesn't have a gender or number system, you can add a simple prefix to a word to identify it as referring to male or female, and you can add a simple suffix to a noun if you really want to specific number. But the majority of the time people don't bother, because you don't need to.

And that's the great thing about Chinese grammar. Amazing as it may seem, people using Chinese can actually communicate with each other effectively, just like people using Greek, even though Chinese people aren't using Greek. Chinese doesn't have the incredibly complicated Greek grammar with its massive number of tenses, cases, and moods, but you can still say everything in Chinese that you can say in Greek; you just do it a different way (and in some cases with an inevitable shift of concept). What does this show us? It shows us that effective communication doesn't require two or three dozen prepositions, a half dozen or more cases, endless lists of conjugations and declensions, and a couple of handfuls of moods. All that stuff is redundant; you can say it all another way, using a far simpler and more efficient grammatical system.

Let's take the definite article for an example. In Greek it declines, and you end up with several tables of definite article. In English there's just a single word. In Chinese there's no definite article at all. Yet we don't hear English people complaining that the single definite article in English makes communication so much more difficult than in Greek, or that 'I just can't be as precise with one form of definite article as I could be if I had a good two dozen declensions'. We certainly don't hear Chinese people complaining about the complete lack of definite article in their language. A definite article with multiple declensions is unnecessary. A definite article at all is unnecessary.

Michael Christensen wrote:English seems to be somewhere in between, however I assume it is closer to Greek than it is to Chinese.


Unfortunately true.

Michael Christensen wrote:I don't think that one language is better than the others, they are simply very different – and this fact reveals the very different mindset underlying the respective cultures.


Value terms such as 'better' or 'worse' are certainly meaningless in terms of evaluating languages. However, objective terms such as 'complex', 'simple', 'efficient', 'redundant', 'unnecessary', and 'functional' are extremely relevant.

Michael Christensen wrote:It would probably be very interesting to compare Greek and Chinese philosophy and research how the differences in thinking relate to the differences in language (does someone know of a study that has been done on this topic?).


Most definitely. I've lost count of the amount of material I've read on the subject (one interesting paper to which I've returned more than once is 'Why Isaac Newton Was Not A Chinese). More than one Chinese and foreign linguist has noted for example that the laborious rote learning pedagogy necessary for learning Chinese actually had and has a significant impact on pedagogy, and a resulting impact on socio-cultural attitudes and thought processes. The Chinese writing system requires countless hours of brute force rote learning, reflected in a pedagogy heavily reliant on endless repetition, drilling, and copying. The pedagogy of other subjects was inevitably effected, and endless repetition, drilling, and copying of set pieces of information has been the absolute staple of the Chinese pedagogy for thousands of years. I'll spare you all the details, but the professor to whose article I linked earlier put it this way.

Through an idiosyncrasy in history, having adopted a different logic in constructing their writing, China has trodden down a different path from that of Europe. This quirk of fate has led to an inescapable acceptance of the Confucian dogma. The teaching of Confucius cannot be falsified. The historical inevitability why Isaac Newton was not a Chinese seems to have been rooted in an idiosyncrasy of a linguistic development.


Fair comment.

Michael Christensen wrote:Furthermore, I find that the respective writing systems are quite well-adjusted to the characteristics of the different languages: the economy, simplicity and relative ambiguity of Chinese grammar would not work well if written using Greek letters (and poetry or short three/four word aphorisms would become completely impossible).


The economy, simplicity, and relative ambiguity of Chinese grammar works perfectly when spoken, so writing it phonetically doesn't change any of that. Poetic forms would change as a result of using an alphabet, but not very much. You'd still be writing three or four word aphorisms, they just wouldn't be three or four character aphorisms. But that's ok, poetry forms have changed over the centuries in plenty of ways, and always will. No one is crying today that we can't rhyme like Chaucer could. The language changes, the users adapt. So it always has been, so it always will be. Long live living languages!

Michael Christensen wrote:Chinese would probably have to acquire a more complex grammar and phonology in order to avoid too much ambiguity – the so-called "simplification" would bring about greater complexities and difficulties in other areas.


Nope, it hasn't happened. The Chinese script has been gradually simplified to increasingly an ever increasingly more radical extent over the last couple of thousand years, and these 'greater complexities and difficulties' haven't materialized. Remember, kindergartners are able to read and write Chinese using a phonetic alphabet, and that's how they learn to speak it as well, so the idea of it being impractically difficult is demonstrably untrue.

Michael Christensen wrote:Conversely, if one tried to write Greek using Chinese characters, the writing would become extremely tedious because of the numerous particles that would necessarily have to be added to display case endings, tense, mood, voice, etc. As a result, many of the case endings, etc. would be dropped, resulting in a simpler grammar.


That would be a big win for Greek! :D

Michael Christensen wrote:Though each language may have weaknesses, it would be deplorable to try to get rid of the "weaknesses" and thereby lose the distinct advantages.


Well yeah, but as languages change various 'advantages' can end up dropped because while they were advantageous at one point in time, they aren't any more. Living languages undergo a certain amount of natural selection. One distinct advantage I can see of Chinese, is the grammar. That's an advantage Greek certainly doesn't have. But changing to a phonetic alphabet preserves that advantage whilst gaining several more. Even simplifying the characters has the same effect, which is why the Chinese themselves have consistently and repeatedly simplified their own characters for a good 2,000 years now, and continue to do so.

Michael Christensen wrote:Why, if we started writing "fotograf" instead of "photograph", it might "simplify" the spelling, but it would destroy the distinct advantage that the etymological origins (in this case it obviously comes from Greek) have left their traces in the English spelling.


What advantage? The phoneticization 'graph' is arbitrary anyway, and 'graf' sounds exactly the same. The vast majority of people wouldn't have a clue about the etymology, and they still manage to use the word ok.

Michael Christensen wrote:If Chinese used only phonetic symbols instead of visual symbols (which, in their traditional form have been used with basically little or no significant changes for approximately two thousand years, which suggests that the system was rather effective), the distinct advantage of seeing visual connections and associations between different words would be lost, e.g. 林(forest), 森(another word for forest, probably suggesting thick vegetation), 果(fruit), 樹(tree), 李(plum), 枝(branch of a tree), 桃(peach), 桑(mulberry tree), even 椅(chair) and 桌(table) – all contain the symbol 木, meaning tree or, in a wider sense, wood (tables and chairs generally used to be made of wood and often still are). This visual system additionally has the advantage that one can often guess the approximate meaning of an unknown character from its visual appearance.


But this is an illusory advantage, because those meanings aren't really derived from the character they're derived from the context. Sure, 馬 looks like a horse if we squint at it sideways, but that doesn't help us when it's used as a component in over 100 words which have absolutely nothing to do with horses (mother, interrogative particle, surprise, curse, halt, sail, fly, arrogant, proud, board, big, parallel, drum, numerous, grey, ferocious, happy, glad, joy, etc). But wait, the simplified version is 马, looking nothing like a horse. So what has been lost as a result of the simplification? Is the character now incomprehensible? Have mainland Chinese discovered grammatical, semantic, and phonetic difficulties as a result of this radical simplification? No they haven't. They've chosen to simplify their own script so it's easier, and not only is their business to do so but they probably know what they're doing in the process.
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Re: Comparing the characteristics of Greek, English and Chin

Postby Michael Christensen » August 4th, 2011, 10:29 am

Fortigurn wrote:If gaining fluency in one's native language (an essential social skill), is a matter of 5 years or 15 years, which do you think is the more rational approach?


I doubt it takes 15 years to achieve fluency in Chinese. That seems to me to be a massive exaggeration. In fact, students in Taiwan are already able to read fairly advanced texts after 5 years – with occasional phonetic symbols appearing here and there for words that might still be unfamiliar.
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Re: Comparing the characteristics of Greek, English and Chin

Postby Michael Christensen » August 4th, 2011, 12:02 pm

Fortigurn wrote:Let's not perpetuate any myths about the 'meaningful information' which Chinese characters contain. The vast majority of them do not contain any meaningful information other than an arbitrarily assigned semantic value, which cannot be logically or systematically derived from the character. All the 'pictures and associations' are simply ad hoc mnemonics which have accumulated over the years as people have sought to systematize the learning of a character system which has no fundamental organization, nor any consistent correlation between symbol and semantic meaning.


I most emphatically disagree. Look through a dictionary organized by the "radical" system. For example, look at the characters under the radical 日 for sun: the majority of the characters have to do with time, season or light/brightness/darkness. Of course, some characters seem to be more distant in their relation to this field of meaning than others; and there are a few irregularities that don't quite "fit" as well – but which language doesn't have some irregularities or other, anyway?

The character system does certainly have a fundamental organization system: the so-called 說文解字 analysed several thousands of characters according to their components – the majority of the characters, as far as I know, were explained as semantic-phonetic compound characters: 形聲字, meaning that one part of the character points to the meaning in some way and the other mainly points to the sound (though the phonetic compound sometimes also has to do with the meaning). In the 18th century, the emperor 康熙 came up with a system which made it easier to look up characters: the 部首 – a system which is basically still used today.

A book I have found very useful is the http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0966075005/zipubooks Although the explanations of the characters are not always strictly correct in the sense of historical etymological origins, many of the explanations make a lot of sense. And even if there is a lot of so-called "folk-etymology", it is still useful to learn that Chinese way, because it is meaningful as well as "historical" in the sense that the Asian folk have seen these meanings and associations in the characters throughout several centuries or millenia.

As for "logical" and systematic correlations: I would certainly insist that many characters are systematic, though they aren't always "logical". But what is "logical" anyway, and why in the heck does a language always have to be "logical", anyway? Do the English words for "evening", "sun", "sunset" and "morning" have any "logical" correlation between the word and their meaning? This is a point where I think Chinese even has a special advantage, because at least the writing has – in many cases – something to do with the meaning, as a sun 日 has to do with evening or late 晚。

As for the lack of a "consistent correlation between symbol and semantic meaning": this is why I proposed further back that Chinese probably tends to emphasize a more "associational" mode of thinking. If you are used to thinking in very tight and strict logical categories, you might have more difficulties making sense out of Chinese. However, as I explained using the examples with 日,many things and concepts that people have associated with 日 throughout centuries/millenia of Chinese history have been grouped together in characters that are listed under the radical 日。These associations may not always seem immediately "logical" and comprehensible to us now, but I find that they are very fascinating, meaningful, inspire my imagination and become progressively easier to understand, learn and sometimes to even intuit meanings of unknown words…

The two modes of thinking – "logical" and "associational" – that I am supposing here are (I think) equally important and equally "good" (we probably need some of both, anyway). I only think it is unjust to use one mode of thinking to judge something that uses more of the other mode to be inferior, e.g. looking at the more "associational" Chinese characters from within a "logical" mode of thinking and claiming them to be inherently worse, meaningless and more clumsy (or whatever else you may have claimed). Different languages (or writing systems) have different advantages and disadvantages, but it would be a pity to only focus on whatever disadvantages there seem to be instead of making full use of the advantages.
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Re: Comparing the characteristics of Greek, English and Chin

Postby Michael Christensen » August 4th, 2011, 1:32 pm

if I show you a character you don't know, there is no system you can use to derive reliably what it means, or even how to pronounce it. This is made even more difficult due to the fact that Chinese grammar is so context dependent, so a reader needs to understand more of the sentence in order to understand individual words, than is necessary in English.


If you show me a Hebrew word I don't know, there is also no system I can use to reliably derive what it means, except looking it up in a dictionary. Nor would I be able to pronounce it correctly unless it had vowel points under it, but even so, that wouldn't help me to figure out what it means. (Of course, when I get better at Hebrew -- after knowing more "roots", I might be able to figure out some of the unknown words more easily if I find that they are connected to one of the three-letter "roots" I already know.)

Conversely, if I don't know a Chinese character, I might not be able be sure of its meaning (without looking it up), but I can at times more or less get the general idea, as for example with -- since it has the 鳥 radical, I can reasonably guess that it would likely either be a kind of bird or have something to do with birds. If I didn't know the word "kingfisher" in English, I would have no way of knowing that it has anything to do with a bird -- I might even think that it has something to do with a king's fishing boat or fishermen. Even the pronounciation isn't so hard to figure out, in this case it is exactly the same as the phonetic compound 肅。Of course, I couldn't be very sure of the pronounciation, but I could at least make an educated guess.

As for the dependency upon context, here is where I have to agree with you. I've found that difficult and still do. But here is where the Chinese writing helps me: if I don't know a certain character or word-phrase, it will be harder to determine the context just from the phonetic sounds. For example: suppose I didn't know the word-phrase 「成熟」. If I heard it in a conversation, I wouldn't have any way of figuring out is meant, since I wouldn't know which ㄔㄥˊ and which ㄕㄡˊ is being referred to. Reading the sentence in Chinese, even if I only knew one of the two characters, I could get the gist of the message more easily.

I read regularly and try to guess unknown characters from the context as well as the radical (as I described). That way, I can get the gist of many things without having to reference a dictionary all the time. And when I learn new characters, I learn them in the context of sentences using this: http://dict.concised.moe.edu.tw/jdict/main/cover/main.htm
It has definitions as well as example sentences to characters as well as multiple character compound phrases and even has a voice recording on many of them. I find it to be pretty useful myself.

There is also a tool called "PeraPeraKun" that I've added to my web browser: if I turn it on and hover the mouse over an unknown word, it flashes an English translation. Of course, an English translation is never accurate and doesn't completely represent the way people use it in another language, so the goal for me is to think in the language and use definitions and examples in the language (of Chinese in this case). But it can come in handy at times when there are too many passages I'm not sure of (I try to guess the meaning before hovering the mouse over it though; to my satisfaction, sometimes I get it right, and when I don't, it helps me to better understand and remember for next time).

Coming across unknown words when reading is something that one encounters in learning any foreign language, however. I see no reason to consider Chinese to be especially more difficult than others in that regard.
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Re: Comparing the characteristics of Greek, English and Chin

Postby Michael Christensen » August 4th, 2011, 2:22 pm

I have a phonetically printed copy of 三字經. It's perfectly comprehensible. Reading 三字經 using the phonetic alphabet is how the kindergartners first learn it. To say that it's incomprehensible when written phonetically is simply not true.


I assume that -- if the kindergartners understand the meaning and are not just using it for reading practice per se -- the teachers and/or parents probably explained the meanings to them, and the teachers/parents obviously understand the meaning because they know what characters are behind the pronounciation.

I doubt you would be able to understand the 三字經 using only phonetic symbols and no prior introduction, annotations or translations. For example, how would you know that in 「子不學,非所宜。幼不學,老何為。」, it is 「幼」and not 「又」, since they both have the same pronounciation and could possibly "fit" as well? Besides, then 「宜」could also become 「怡」or even 「誼」。There would be too many places where you'd have to guess between several different possibilties and I doubt even someone who is very proficient in Chinese as his mother tongue would be able to get it right (provided he had never learned it before, which probably is hard to find). Because Chinese is so context dependent, the fact that the phonetic symbols are not a precise indicator as to which characters are being used -- and therefore which meanings are intended -- many things would become incomprehensible and indistinguishable.
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Re: Comparing the characteristics of Greek, English and Chin

Postby Michael Christensen » August 4th, 2011, 3:07 pm

But this is an illusory advantage, because those meanings aren't really derived from the character they're derived from the context. Sure, 馬 looks like a horse if we squint at it sideways, but that doesn't help us when it's used as a component in over 100 words which have absolutely nothing to do with horses (mother, interrogative particle, surprise, curse, halt, sail, fly, arrogant, proud, board, big, parallel, drum, numerous, grey, ferocious, happy, glad, joy, etc).


In order to make an accurate evaluation, you should differentiate between semantic and phonetic components. Since you haven't done the analysis correctly in the above example, I see it's no wonder you don't understand the connections: mother 媽 uses 女 (woman) as a semantic component, and a mother certainly is a woman. The horse is used to remind you of the pronouncation: ma. Same with the interrogative particle: 嗎 uses 口 (mouth) -- a mouth for interrogating: what's so odd about that?
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Re: Comparing the characteristics of Greek, English and Chin

Postby Michael Christensen » August 4th, 2011, 6:31 pm

But wait, the simplified version is 马, looking nothing like a horse. So what has been lost as a result of the simplification? Is the character now incomprehensible? Have mainland Chinese discovered grammatical, semantic, and phonetic difficulties as a result of this radical simplification? No they haven't. They've chosen to simplify their own script so it's easier, and not only is their business to do so but they probably know what they're doing in the process.


I do think that 「馬」 is more distinct (besides looking better and looking more like a horse -- note that the four dots on the bottom might be likened to a mane) than 「马」, i.e. it catches my eye faster and therefore probably tends to actually speed reading fluency rather than slowing it down. However, that isn't the main problem with simplified characters, and no, in this case the simplification didn't cause "grammatical, semantic, and phonetic difficulties", because the same simplification is maintained in other characters using 「馬」 as a component -- therefore, although it is aesthetically less pleasing and perhaps not quite as easy to read, it still keeps up the same structure as the traditional characters.

Things start to get a lot worse in other simplifications, though. For example: 「聲」(sound) was simplified into 「声」, dropping the radical 「耳」(ear). Now I wouldn't argue that the simplified character isn't faster to write than the traditional, but it is at least equally clear that the traditional character is more meaningful and makes more sense, because it contains「耳」.

So, although some simplified characters make sense, there are unfortunately many more that don't. So the "simplifications" don't necessarily make life easier -- they might be faster to write sometimes, but they aren't easier to remember or to read, because they often make less sense and contain less meaningful information that would help one remember them. The easier one can form meaningful associations with something, the easier it can be remembered -- that's why I estimate that people learning "simplified" Chinese will actually have to rely more on rote memorization than people who learn the traditional forms.

In fact, I've seen quite a few Chinese who have no trouble reading traditional script, and they sometimes even agree that these characters make more sense -- it's just that they are more used to the "simplified", because that's the way they grew up. On the other hand, Taiwanese people often simplify their hand-writing, using 行書 (running script) or even 草書 (documentary script) style to connect strokes without picking up the pen or even simplify some of the components of a character. I think it's fine if people simplify at their own will when hand-writing -- why shouldn't they if it is convenient to them?

But I don't see that simplified characters would help people much in learning to read. (And to be clear: in order to write 行書 well, one must first study the 楷書 /standard script.) A computer has no trouble printing the traditional forms, so why not use these in print if they aren't any more difficult (I think rather that they are easier) to read.
Michael Christensen
 
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