Most of the world’s languages are written alphabetically; in an alphabetic writing system the basic components represent sounds only without any reference to meaning. For example, the letter “b” in English represents a voiced bilabial stop, but no particular meaning can be attached to it in its function as a letter of the alphabet. Chinese writing is logographic, that is, every symbol either represents a word or a minimal unit of meaning. When I write the character , it not only has a sound, niu, it has a meaning, “cow.” Only a small number of symbols is necessary in an alphabetic system (generally under 50), but a logographic system, such as Chinese writing requires thousands of symbols.From the aspects of sound, every Chinese character represents one syllable. Many of these syllables are also words, but we should not think that every word in modern Chinese is monosyllabic. The word for “television,” for example, is , dianshi; since this word has two syllables, it is necessary to write it with two characters. Each of these characters has an independent meaning: dian means “electric,” and shi means “vision”; in this particular case neither of the characters can be used alone in modern Chinese as a word; however, in the Chinese of two and a half millennia ago, both characters were independent words. So, when we say that Chinese has a logographic writing system, one in which each basic symbol represents an independent syllable, we are speaking of the Chinese of a much earlier period. How many characters does the average literate Chinese person know? Studies carried out in China have shown that full literacy requires a knowledge of between three and four thousand characters. Learning so many characters is very time-consuming and places a heavy burden on students. This has led many Chinese in the past to advocate the abolition of characters in favor of an alphabetic system, but such programs have met with little success. We will return to the question of script reform below. Although literacy requires the knowledge of a few thousand characters, the total number of characters is much greater. A dictionary produced in the eleventh century contained more than fifty-three thousand characters. Even when one takes into account that many of these characters represented rare words and many others were merely different ways of writing the same word, the number still seems staggering. Fortunately, the average person is required to know only a small percentage of this enormous number. It is interesting that both printing and movable type were invented in China. The latter, however, was little used until modern times. Most printing used wooden blocks on which characters were carved individually in meticulous detail. Undoubtedly the reason for this was the large number of characters used in ordinary printing; it was easier to carve individual blocks than it was to create a stock of several thousand type and set it by hand. On the other hand, movable type is eminently suited to alphabetic writing systems. Nowadays characters can easily be written on a computer, and older methods of printing are rapidly disappearing. Chinese writing has a history of some three thousand five hundred years. It is not as old as Sumerian or Egyptian writing; there is no certain evidence, however, that the invention of writing in China was in any way stimulated by the earlier existence of writing in the Near East. The earliest examples of Chinese writing are divinatory texts written on bones and shells. These usually consist of a question put to a diviner along with his answer. This earliest Chinese script shows that in its earliest history, Chinese writing was based on pictures. The word for “cow” was clearly the picture of a cow's head; “to go” was written with the picture of a foot. However, a little reflection shows that it is impossible to have a fully pictorial system of writing. How would one depict, for example, some abstract grammatical notion such as “completion of an action”? It would seem that from the very beginning of writing certain symbols that originated as pictograms were used for their sound alone, and it was only when this phonetic use of characters was introduced that a complete graphic record of language was possible. In the history of Chinese writing the number of characters that contained a phonetic element grew progressively, but Chinese never abandoned the principle of one character per word (or at least one character for each meaningful element).
Author: Jerry Norman.