The Character of Languages

The Chinese Characters for Níhăo, "hello"

When I write about China, I assume that nobody knows anything about China. Ask an average well-educated Westerner to name a classic work of Chinese fiction or give the dates for a Chinese dynasty, and more often than not, even that simple task will stump him. I hope that the situation will change as China’s growing geopolitical importance leads more and more Americans to learn Chinese history, language and culture.

But it might not; even the Chinese themselves sometimes believe a lot of misinformation about their own culture. Consider their consistent adherence to the myth of a naturally unified China, or their occasional belief in the essential incompatibility of Western freedoms with Chinese culture. The Chinese are just as prone to exoticize themselves as Westerners are to identify China as a mysterious Other.

This principle is doubly true of the Chinese writing system. Raffi asked me to comment on a debate between this New York Times op-ed bemoaning the Romanization of Chinese on the internet, and this blog post that rather savagely critiques the op-ed. Initially, I sided fairly solidly with the critique. Even the hint of the exoticization of Chinese characters makes me grit my teeth, and the description of the language as “strange and magical” certainly made me put up my guard–after all, would anyone really describe Romance languages that way? It didn’t help that the piece contained a lot of nonsense about the way Chinese works. Let’s break down one particularly odious paragraph:

Part of the beauty of the Chinese language comes from a kind of divisibility not possible in a Latin-based language. . . . These characters each mean something on their own; they are also combined with other characters to form hundreds of thousands of multisyllabic words. Níhăo, for example, Chinese for “Hello,” is composed of ní — “you,” and hăo — “good.” Isn’t “You good” — both as a statement and a question — a marvelous and strangely precise breakdown of what we’re really saying when we greet someone?

Latin languages don’t have that sort of divisibility? Bonjour, Orientalism! Not to mention, I would never say that Níhăo is simply Chinese for “Hello.” Níhăo is a common Chinese salutation, typically translated as “hello.” But Níhăo is not quite “hello.” For one thing, it is composed of two distinct units of meaning–not because it’s composed of characters, but just because that’s the way it is. Additionally, I don’t think any Chinese person reads Níhăo as “you good,” even though those are indeed the component morphemes. Again, this has nothing to do with the Chinese use of characters. The word “Godspeed” is quite similar; it is constructed out of two distinct morphemes, but most people understand it as equivalent to “good luck.”

In reality, Chinese characters are simply not the dramatically alien system of writing that people think they are. They don’t, as Pound mistakenly thought, directly represent ideas. They are just another system for graphically representing spoken language. We write “book” and they write , but there doesn’t seem to me to be any “magical” difference in the way the mind understands both those words upon reading them. Of course, the system functions differently. Most notably, because Chinese characters refer to words and not sounds, they allow communities that speak mutually unintelligible languages to easily understand each other through writing. Mandarin speakers and Cantonese speakers are able to read each other’s writing without any extra effort, and despite the fact that Cantonese and Mandarin are about as different in sound and structure as English and German. Additionally, a high school student in the People’s Republic can easily read a text from the Song dynasty. The unique features of the writing system enable the Chinese to imagine themselves as a community unified by a common system of writing over vast stretches of time and space.

Ultimately, the simple fact that the Chinese writing system allows for an imagined Chinese community is in itself significant. This feature of the language–however arbitrary, however accidental–has given the Chinese writing system a unique role in Chinese society. The writer of the critique thinks that characters could be replaced with pinyin with no loss of meaning. Such a theory requires a belief that languages are inert, perfectly transparent mediums for conveying meaning. But languages and systems of writing are neither inert nor transparent; they represent cultures, and they have their own cultural significances. The Chinese system of writing, for example, has a tremendous cultural valence. The Chinese words for culture (wenhua, 文化) and civilization (wenming, 文明) both contain the character for writing (wen, ). For centuries, China’s unique writing system was the primary component in the civilization’s claim to cultural superiority, a system that distinguished civilized tribute states from barbarian threats, an educated elite from peasant castes doomed to a life of hardship. The Chinese writing system is more than just a writing system; it signifies a way of life.

This quality is not a magical quality. It isn’t an inherent, ineffable property of the language. But meaning is often not located in words themselves. It comes from that with which we associate those words, and from that with which we compare and contrast those words. After all, “they know not what they do” and “they don’t know what they’re doing” are perfectly equivalent phrases in a syntactical sense, but have vastly different associations within our culture. When I pray in Hebrew as opposed to English, I am giving Hebrew a meaning. It has nothing to do with Hebrew, which is perfectly capable of expressing secular concepts. However, by designating Hebrew as a “sacred” language, I am creating a role for Hebrew that has a distinct significance and valid meaning for me and for a community of believers.

Believing, after all, is the key term here. When we create communities around language, we elevate them beyond the status of simple tools. The idea that any two human beings can share what they’re thinking without loss of meaning is so preposterous that languages automatically become more than objects of a science; they’re objects of faith as well.

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8 Responses to The Character of Languages

  1. Karl Wassmann says:

    As a linguist I would like to say how happy I am that your account of the relationship between language and culture is well reasoned and on point. Also I would like to add regarding your last sentence that there is a science of languages as the object of faith, which is sociolinguistics.

  2. “Mandarin speakers and Cantonese speakers are able to read each other’s writing without any extra effort”

    Wrong. Mandarin speakers cannot read written Cantonese without any extra effort. Cantonese speakers learn a foreign language, (Mandarin), to write formal “Chinese.”

    “Additionally, a high school student in the People’s Republic can easily read a text from the Song dynasty. ”

    Wrong. A high school student has to be taught to understand Classical Chinese. Americans can easily read Middle or Old English if we are taught what all the words mean and how the language differs from ours, but that’s not what you wanted to say.

    • dylansuher says:

      1.) I am embarrassed to admit that I was unaware of a colloquial Cantonese writing system; thank you for pointing that out. And you are justified in pointing out that syntax is dramatically different in Mandarin and Cantonese, so it’s not without any extra effort. But with specific reference to standard vernacular characters, I’ve never heard of a literate Cantonese speaker who was unable or had great difficulty reading them, by which I mean, making sense of each word. My viewpoint, as you must have noticed, is Mandarin/PRC-centric, so I could be wrong. By contrast, I can’t really make any sense of a word written in Bahasa Indonesian, even though it’s written in the same alphabet as English.

      In general, Cantonese is sort of a special case, because it has a strong independent identity as a language. You may instead consider the Wu group of dialects. Shanghainese is largely not mutually intelligible with Mandarin, but a Shanghainese reader can read something written in vernacular, and writes in vernacular, and does this as a rule. Again, is this largely due to politics and culture? Certainly. In an alternate universe, there exists a set of characters that more closely corresponds to Wu usage. In that same alternate universe, as a Brooklynite, I would have a system of orthography that reflects my pronunciation. I think this reinforces my point, which is that Chinese is not inherently very different from any other language, more than it undermines it. I thank you for correcting and clarifying my point.

      2.) I believe I overstated the case when I said that they can easily read a text. First of all, I should have been clearer; I was referring to baihua, vernacular texts, not Classical Chinese, which you are perfectly correct in pointing out must be taught even to native speakers. Even then, there are, of course, grammar and diction differences, but it seems to me (and not being a native speaker myself), the task is more akin to a native English speaker reading a novel from the 18th or 19th century, after spelling was standardized. I find reading a Middle or Old English text fairly difficult, because I have to stop and figure out what words are actually being written, which is most certainly not a problem with written Chinese.

      I sometimes write out of my depth on this blog (I am not a linguist, for example, and I am far from a fluent Chinese speaker/reader), and I appreciate efforts to correct me. Thanks for reading and commenting. Also, thanks for stopping by, Karl!

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