Book Review: The Chinese Language - a comment
Title: The Chinese Language - Fact and Fantasy
Author: John DeFrancis
ISBN: 0-8248-1068-6 / 0-8284-0866-5
Year of publication: 1984
This book gives an introduction to some of the concepts underlying the
Chinese language and writing system - not as an introduction for someone
wanting to learn the language, but as a means of understanding how this
complex beast is put together.
It gives little or no thought to the ideas of "balance" or "official
view"; this is the author's opinion on how the world works, and makes no
bones about being exactly that.
There is no "chinese language". There is a group of related ways of speaking,
which some may call dialects, others call regionalects, and still others
would regard as separate languages. One such variant, based on the speech
popular around Beijing, has been elevated to "preferred" status in the
PRC, and is now known as "puthonga", or common language.
The Chinese script has a heavy phonological basis, shown in the phonetic
elements common in more than half of Chinese characters. Unfortunately
they are missing from many common characters, causing many foreign scholars
to miss the point that they are a necessary resource for Chinese readers.
It is not a brilliant ideographic script; it is a lousy phonetic script.
There can be no such thing as an "ideographic" script, where symbols stand
for ideas unrelated to words. Human brains don't work that way. Therefore,
Chinese isn't such a script either.
The Chinese script is not a benefit to the Chinese society. It is a roadblock
on the way to anything resembling mass literacy, and needs to be abandoned
if China is to achieve the benefits of modernization.
There are 2 sections of the book that stand out as truly fascinating, above
and beyond the info on the language itself:
The quite savage description of the Great Ideographic Myth, formulated
by people who did not understand either language, Chinese or Chinese characters,
and promulgated in a naive and fad-centered West.
The byzantine machinations of language politics in mainland China, especially
in the post-revolution time. To a reader in 2001, it feels like a crime
novel cut off in midstream; "what happened then" is the question on the
tip of your tongue after finishing the book.
The author does not seem to realize that his qualitative argument against
the ideographic nature of Chinese characters is circular. Reduced to essentials,
His foundation arguments for thinking so seem sound, but he gets a little
strident in making the argument; "the impossibility of memorizing 10.000
characters" has to contend with the fact of people memorizing 3000 characters
that don't have phonological components. As a computer scientist, I don't
enjoy making arguments about "impossible" on the basis of a mere factor
An ideographic script is impossible, therefore Chinese script cannnot be
an ideographic script.
Chinese characters are not an ideographic script, therefore no examples
of an ideograpic script exist.
Since no ideographic script has ever been observed, an ideographic script
However, his arguments for thinking of the Chinese script as having
a partial phonetic basis do not really depend on the circle, and will stand
comfortably on their own.
Status of this memo
This note is an aide-memorie to Harald Alvestrand, trying to make sure
he does not forget everything he thought about while reading the book.
It is made publicly visible so that other people can have some fun
Harald Alvestrand does not know how to read, write or speak any variant