Jason (jcreed) wrote,

I was looking at a recent Language Log post, which linked to this article bemoaning the linguistic faux pas committed by a couple of graphic designers. One of the main objections the author of the latter article had was the use of the words "ideogram", "ideographic" in reference to the Chinese system of writing:
Although some people, through ignorance or force of habit, might use this unfortunate term, the fact remains that Chinese characters aren’t ideograms.
An excerpt from a book by DeFrancis titled "Chinese Language: Fact And Fantasy" is linked in support of this claim. It starts off rhetorically asking,
The concept of ideographic writing is a most seductive notion. There is great appeal in the concept of written symbols conveying their message directly to our minds, thus bypassing the restrictive intermediary of speech. And it seems so plausible. Surely ideas immediately pop into our minds when we see a road sign, a death's head label on a bottle of medicine, a number on a clock. Aren't Chinese characters a sophisticated system of symbols that similarly convey meaning without regard to sound? Aren't they an ideographic system of writing?
However, I'm very confused by following: (emphasis mine)
The answer to these questions is no. 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.
I'm quite willing to believe Chinese isn't, but what's impossible about a written language that has no pronunciation? I may be asking the wrong question, though — from skimming the rest of the excerpted chapter, I think there's an important distinction (a distinction that is claimed at least) between "ideographic" — a language where written figures correspond to ideas — and "lexigraphic" — where they correspond to words. My inclination to hear "ideographic" as "a written language that operates independently of a spoken language" may be irrelevant.

But if you look at the DuPonceau quote carefully,

  1. That the Chinese system of writing is not, as has been supposed, ideographic; that its characters do not represent ideas, but words, and therefore I have called it lexigraphic.
  2. That ideographic writing is a creature of the imagination, and cannot exist, but for very limited purposes, which do not entitle it to the name of writing.
  3. That among men endowed with the gift of speech, all writing must be a direct representation of the spoken language, and cannot present ideas to the mind abstracted from it.
  4. That all writing, as far as we know, represents language in some of its elements, which are words, syllables, and simple sounds.
it suggests something which, depending on how you look at it, is patently ridiculous, somewhat ridiculous, or very reasonable. The patently ridiculous thing is that writing must depend on sounds as constituents. This is ridiculous to my mind because (a) deaf people can learn, for example, written english and (b) writing systems can be and have been invented for the transcription of sign language. The somewhat ridiculous thing, which you might imagine as a concession to the previous thing, is that writing must parasitically depend on some other "real" language, be it spoken or gesticulated. I don't have as good a case against this claim, but I think it's nonsense. If people can learn second languages at all, and indeed if hearing people can learn sign language (for which the mode of communication is very different from that which they learned as a child) I can certainly imagine that a person could invent and/or learn a written language for which words and sentences are made out of written symbols without any reference to "syllables, and simple sounds". You might ask how a dictionary is to be made to define such a language, and you might point out that english words would be used to give definitions, and so, aha, there are the sounds that must inevitably be referred to. I would object: one never says that french isn't a real language, or that french refers inexorably to english sounds just because french-english dictionaries have english words in them.

Anyway, the reasonable thing (to my understanding) is that languages spoken by human beings with merely human mental capabilities probably need to have words made out of some kind of consituents, drawn from a reasonably small set, which are combined in some sufficiently sytematic way that we can memorize the rules to proficiency. The major error, I think, made when people naively talk about there being "one symbol per idea" or "one symbol per word", (not that knowledgeable people can't legitimately say there is one character per word, more or less) is that they fail to realize that characters are made out of strokes and radicals and horizontal, vertical and "surroundal" composition of smaller things. Many of them are correlated with semantics or pronuncation in (irregular but not totally chaotic) ways. As DeFrancis writes,

But while it is possible for a writing system to have many individual "ideographs" or "ideograms," it is not possible to have a whole writing system based on the ideographic principle. Alphabetic writing requires mastery of several dozen symbols that are needed for phonemic representation. Syllabic writing requires mastery of what may be several hundred or several thousand symbols that are needed for syllabic representation. Ideographic writing, however, requires mastery of the tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of symbols that would be needed for ideographic representation of words or concepts without regard to sound. A bit of common sense should suggest that unless we supplement our brains with computer implants, ordinary mortals are incapable of such memory feats.
Alphabetic writing does use a small set of consitutents, but we remember many, many morphemes which are ultimately fairly arbitrary sequences of these constituents. For a congenitally deaf person reading english, these are the end of the road — they don't know of any sounds to index them to.

But this is fine. The "feat of memory" that we perform in memorizing the sounds of all the thousands of morphemes we know is no more and no less impressive than the deaf reader memorizing many strings of letters. The hard task (I expect, based on my limited knowledge of how human brains work) would be a person memorizing thousands of completely unrelated squiggles, or thousands of completely unrelated sounds. The thing that the lexicon-module of human brains seems to be good at is holding a lot of "sequences" over some finite set of "letters". I mean by "sequence" and "letter", however, something general enough to include things like "arranged two-dimensional conglomerations" and "fully pronounced word together with intonation contour and other such suprasegmental features" under the notion of "sequence" and things like "single stroke" and "phoneme" under "letter".

Tags: chinese, linguistics

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