Comparing writing systems

Chinese character writing

A 'Logographic' writing system

In a logographic writing system, in theory, each symbol represents one idea.
The outstanding example of a logographic system is Chinese, the writing system for a quarter of the world's population. Chinese compares and contrasts spectacularly with English, the other major world writing system. Both have had long-running problems of orthographic reform, but it is the Chinese, not the English, who have been stirred to practical action about them.

Logographic writing systems are direct contrasts to the alphabetic principle of English spelling in how they represent meaning (semantic features of language) and speech (phonological features).

Advantages and disadvantages of Chinese logographs


Ideographic orthography, representing ideas, appears suitable for Chinese for several practical reasons.

The official spoken language of Mandarin is made up of around 400 monosyllables, so that there are multiple homophones, and in speech up to five tones are used to help to distinguish them, making an alphabetic system complicated. Because the uniform writing system represents ideas and not sounds, it can also be used for the five distinct languages and many dialects, mostly also tonal and homophonic, within China itself, and it is readable by the literate in Japan and to a certain extent in South Korea and parts of South-East Asia. The advantage of being able to cross languages is also seen in modern commercial logos and other international symbols, which today have an essential function in public communication for multilingual, internationally open societies without universal literacy. However these logos differ from Chinese in that they are designed for contemporary visual simplicity, distinctiveness and memorability and have no burden of tradition or requirements for writing.

The meaning of Chinese symbols can be recognised across time, despite language changes in the spoken language, so that the Chinese have access to almost all their literature and history from pre-classical times.

In Chinese, 'a character is a character is a character' 2 (Tzeng 1983). Each Chinese character or logograph represents one single unit of meaning (morpheme) and one single segment of speech. Contrast English spelling which has only two single-letter words, I and a, and very few two-letter words to parallel those Chinese words that have two morphemes/characters combined. The characters always look the same because they are not altered by any added inflections. The same character can economically and simply represent go/went/gone. A character can be decomposed only into radical and phonetic, or into its series of writing strokes, whereas an English word such as shorthands can be considered as one word, or as three morphemes, or two syllables,or eight phonemes, or nine graphemes or ten letters. Information density may therefore be an advantage of a logography, to get the greatest amount of information across in the shortest possible space, although cross-cultural study (e .g. Gray, 1956) so far suggests that information processing depends so much upon content, that this visual economy may not in fact benefit a skilled reader. However, the issue remains open.

'Whole-word' learning to read is easier with Chinese characters than with linear strings of letters - althought still not easy after the first forty or so. Each character has a gestalt quality to make it more visually memorable. This is emphasised by the invisible square framework within which each character is set, and by the carefulness of the highly esteemed brush calligraphy which seeks to make each word like a picture, a work of art with aesthetic qualities, that are comparable to the rhythm in poetry that conveys memorability.

Disadvantages of logographs

It is hard for logos to represent ideas that cannot be symbolised as concrete objects. It is difficult to express abstract concepts and connected thought in pictographs, or to put forward novel ideas. Even direct pictographs can be ambiguous or hard to interpret - for example, the logos on my car dashboard are more difficult to interpret than printed English words would be. Indeed, it has been difficult for China to introduce the new concepts and vocabulary of Western science and learning into her culture using hanzi characters, although suggestions that conceptual breakthroughs require alphabets may be too extreme. New words in Chinese are usually produced by multiple characters of several morphemes - for example, 'psychology' is made up of 'mind+logic+study', rather in the way that English derives many new words by compounding from classical roots. And so modern vocabulary becomes more complex, losing the original word-symbol simplicity.

There can be problems of interpretation of written Chinese because there is no relation to a specific spoken language,and no direct link with the spoken vocabulary, although there can be phonetic indicators. The exact meaning of a character may depend upon its context - and even upon its reader. Chinese is written with a Mandarin language structure that differs from Cantonese and some other Chinese languages and dialects. An international logographic system would also face difficulties for international dialogue because word order and phonetic clues would differ according to the reader's own language.

The joke that English learners must learn two languages, the spoken and the written, is also true for learners of Chinese. Chinese does have phonetic elements, representing spoken sounds, but according to Wang (1973) it is not possible to read using the phonetic elements without first analysing the whole character to find out which is the phonetic element. And of course, if the reader does not speak Mandarin, the phonetic element will not be directly helpful.

Chinese orthography, like English, is a product of its long history, so that, like English, it has developed complexities and inconsistencies. However, these have developed in different ways. Chinese has followed a characteristic development of logographic writing systems. At first pictures expressed concrete ideas, and then symbols began to be used to express particular ideas or units of meaning, e.g. a sword to represent anger. The first move to start representing speech was the trick of extending written vocabulary by using pictures or existing hieroglyphics to express how a word was spoken, with 'rebuses' e.g. Eye- Can- Sea- Ewe (as an unlikely example). In this way the script began to represent syllables, which are the easiest units of speech to distinguish. Like ancient Egyptian, Chinese orthography then developed into a very complex mixture, and its history is now represented by five or six classes of characters. (Chao, 1968, Taylor & Taylor, 1983). Pictographs, less than 3% of characters today, are often now unrecognisable as their original picture. Then there are simple and compound ideograms, sometimes with repeated characters, e.g. two trees= forest, three trees = dense forest. Finally, semantic and phonetic compounds, including phonetic loans and phonograms, make up 80-90% of modern characters.

Over time, the significs or radical components have been reduced to around 189, and the phonogramic components of the characters have increased - almost parallel to the trend of development of Western writing systems. Although there are about eight hundred 'phonetics', spoken language has changed so much over two thousand years that even experienced readers must guess rather than be sure of the sound of a character, and as well, they must still work out the tone. In different characters, the pronunciation of the same phonetic may be similar, but not identical. Zhou (1978, cited by Taylor & Taylor, 1983) calculated that the success rate of using a phonetic to predict the sound of a character was 0.39. As in English, the original derivation can also be misleading. For example, the radical <insect> appears in the characters for snake and crab, and <wood> remains part of the character for cup.

The difference between Chinese logographs and speech-related 'phonemic' forms of writing is thus not absolute. A Chinese symbol can represent the spoken word as as much as the meaning, just as the alphabetic spelling <hand> represents the meaning hand as much as the sounds in /hand/. In some ways the strokes in a character operate like letters. Radicals classified according to number of strokes have been the most common basis for attempting to order the thousands of logographs in dictionaries, catalogs, and phone books, and learners' memory for characters is aided by their use of graphomotor memory of the order in which they learnt to write the strokes.

Some long words in Chinese are like phrases, since a modern Chinese word can consist of up to eight characters, each one a unit of meaning (morpheme). These multicharacter words also reduce the problem that so many Chinese words have the same sound (homophones). Two words are often used together to ensure that the meaning is not misunderstood, such as road-route instead of street (a strategy that has been carried over into Chinese pidgin English, e.g. look-see.).

With so many characters, visual complexity is necessary to discriminate between them all, and some take up to 30 strokes, but today the most common characters have been simplified to an average of around five strokes. This is helpful for learners and writers, but, curiously enough, this simplification is not of benefit to readers,

The complete Chinese writing system consists of from 40,000-70,000 characters (accurate estimates are difficult) each representing a one-syllable word. Modern dictionaries contain only up to about 8500 characters, 7000 characters are a typical set for a newspaper font, and a reader who knows 3000 characters is 'literate'. Although 1500 characters can be too few for functional literacy, this may be too many for ordinary folk to learn. In order to reach the masses, Mao Tsedung deliberately used only 3000 character types, and only 750 types made up about 95% of the text of his vast writings (Taylor &Taylor, 1983: 35,). This is comparable to Ogden's Basic English (1930) with its total of 800 words for all basic communication, and how in everyday English print for adults, 95% of the text is made up of the 2000 most common words.

Learning Chinese style characters. Many Japanese claim that learning their Chinese-origin characters is relatively easy. It is even claimed that three-year-olds can learn up to 1000 Japanese kanji characters if they are taught by using kanji's semantic and phonetic relationships systematically. However, Europeans who have been employed to teach English to kindergartners think that the success may be due to the children's remarkably hard work and solemn dedication, rather than to any facility from the script itself.

Some language-disabled, deaf, and autistic learners may be able to associate the visual characters with object or picture, without involving any speech-sounds, as with Blissymbols (Bliss, 1965) and how children recognise product labels on TV and in shops.

It requires less linguistic ability to learn a limited number of signs as whole patterns in Chinese, than to learn how figure out sound-symbol correspondences in English spelling by extracting orthographic regularities from the general inconsistencies. Early teaching methods can be similar to the ones used by the Premacks to teach their chimpanzee Washoe to read 130 word symbols that varied in colour, shape and size, and even to read symbol strings (Premack, 1971). Rozin, Poritsky and Sotsky in a surprisingly famous experiment (1971) found that eight American children who could not learn to read in English were able to learn thirty (only) Chinese characters without difficulty - but the experiment did not go on to becoming completely literate in thousands of characters. In an international study of reading disabilities Tarnapol & Tarnapol (1976) cautiously suggested that the early Chinese pictographs appeared to be easiest for beginning learners, followed by the later ideographs - but that English was one of the worst for learners, as it was the 'least phonetic alphabetic'. Tzeng (1983: 245) claimed, while admitting the lack of hard evidence, that reading disability appears to be rare among beginners learning syllables and logographs, while it is 'pervasive' with the alphabetic principles of English, German, and Spanish. Tzeng & Hung (1980) give linguistics considerations to account for the success of initial logographic, but add that student confidence is not shaken by alphabetic problems. However, optimistic reporters such as Makita (1968) often obtained their evidence from crude survey reports from school teachers, who may well have avoided deprecation of their own students' progress.

Intensive Chinese literacy campaigns have failed to achieve universal literacy, and today roman-alphabet pinyin, often written small above the characters, like Japanese furigana, is used as the initial learning medium in Chinese primary schools, and an equivalent phonemic beginners' and auxiliary script is used in Taiwan, while the Japanese use syllabic hiragana as their introductory script for children.

The great problem with characters is that a limit to easy learning is quickly reached - yet thousands of symbols are required to make the full writing system, requiring patience, practice and time. The first simple cues start to fail as more characters are to be learnt. Chinese and Japanese children quickly learn a few characters as wholes, but then comes a stage when they are liable to confuse characters that share a common subpart, until at last they are able to make correct associations to the whole characters because they have become clearer about the subparts. About 30% of children's time at school may have to be spent mastering characters, which is comparable to the time spent on spelling lessons in traditional 19th century British schools. Typical teaching methods include introducing new characters by explaining them, then copying and recopying in an ordered sequence of strokes (i.e. 'learning to read through writing'). There is still an emphasis on traditional mass drill, with unison chanting and recitation, and continual practice and correction.

The task of learning Chinese writing has been compared to someone trying to remember telephone numbers, although there is more system to it than that. Each character has to be memorised separately, because it cannot be decoded like an alphabetic word. This can limit the extent of adult literacy. However, there are clues, such as the six categories of characters, their radicals and phonetics, the stroke order for writing and other mnemonic devices that can be devised. There are some consistencies in the combinations of characters to be memorised, so that knowing one or more of the combinations in a character can make it possible to work out the word, rather like knowing classical roots and affixes in English words of classical derivation.

That is,the claim of 'whole-character' or 'whole-word' learning even for Chinese is mistaken, after the first few characters that children learn,

Stevenson (1984: 299) considered that in the long run there may little difference between the number of words that can be read by literate Chinese and English-speakers, because if you know four thousand characters, many more combinations can be comprehended. John DeFrancis (1977) claimed that students who knew a thousand characters could guess from the phonetic elements and context how to 'spell out' many further characters.
During the preparation for their cross-cultural reading study, Stevenson et al (1984:) counted by computer the words in elementary textbooks in Taiwan, Japan and the United States, and found that by the end of six years' schooling, children in all three cultures were expected to have a reading vocabulary of around 7000 words, whatever the writing system. However, the researchers did not appear to make comparisons of the intensity of the schoolwork in the three societies, or whether the children actually learned all the vocabulary that was set.

Ten years of schooling are generally needed by Chinese children to become fluent readers, and learning to be fully literate in Chinese has always been accepted to be a life-time's work for a scholarly person of high intelligence. Personal experience confirms that while a literate adult can learn Greek or Korean letters very quickly sufficiently to decode script and unfamiliar words, it takes far longer to learn even 100 Chinese characters.