Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, May 4, 2009

more debates about Chinese orthography

Following up on two earlier posts about the realtive merits of the traditional and simplified Chinese characters, I'd like to note this debate in the Paper of Record. I don't see any consensus emerging here. It's hard for me not to be sympathetic with the proponents of traditional characters, given how intricately they are intertwined with the greatest productions of Chinese cultural history; but so much time and energy has been invested in the simplified character for the past half-century that it's hard to see how the society as a whole can go back. It makes me aware of how many continuities we take for granted here in the West, focused as we tend to be on the things that change.

8 comments:

  • Michael Straight said...

    Yeah, while the Chinese lament their dwindling ability to read 3000-year-old texts, we take for granted how easily we are able to read the English of a mere thousand years ago:

    Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum,
    þeodcyninga,þrym gefrunon,
    hu ðæþelingas ellen fremedon.
    Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum

    Er...make that how jealous we feel of the remarkable continuity of China's long cultural history...

  • Some jerk with an internet connection said...

    Having no Old English at all, I managed to find this in about eight seconds:

    Lo! Praise the prowess of people kings
    Of spear-armed Danes, in days long-sped
    we have heard, and what honor the Aethlings won.
    Oft(en?), Scyld the Scefing from squadroned foes...

    It continues:

    from many a tribe, the mead-bench bore,
    awing the earls. Since erst he lay,
    friendless, a foundling, fate repaid him...

    (Beowulf, Part I. Old English text, British Library MS Cotton Vitellius A; Modern English translation by Francis B. Gummere, Harvard Classics, 1910)

    I also found an Old English translator, which I did not try to use.

    What does this say about concerns regarding the loss of cultural memory?

  • Michael Straight said...

    I don't know much about Chinese. Maybe the ancient Chinese writers are as incomprehensible to modern Chinese readers as Old English is to us.

    But imagine if you could still read and understand Beowulf in the original Old English (or even that the Latin and Greek of Aristotle, St. Paul, Virgil, Augustine, were a living intelligible part of your culture), but that your children and grandchildren could not, and didn't care.

  • Alan Jacobs said...

    Michael, as the articles I linked to explain, Mao's government introduced the simplified characters in the 1950s. Many Chinese educated since then know only the simplified characters, which means that anything written more than fifty years ago will be inaccessible to them unless it has been 'translated' into simplified characters. You may or may not be able to read Beowulf, but I bet you can read Dickens.

  • Alan Jacobs said...

    Can't fix the formatting in that previous comment. Weird.

  • Some jerk with an internet connection said...

    I can't tell who I agree or disagree with in all of this.

    As a semitic philologist who teaches Hebrew Bible to students who can't read Hebrew, I am sympathetic toward those who may feel that something could be lost to Chinese culture, if the ability to read traditional characters were abandoned. There is something to the idea that 'translation is treason,' as people sometimes like to say.

    And yet, as a person who: 1. adovcates the reading of the Hebrew Bible in translation; and 2. regards such an act as a completely legitimate encounter with the text itself; and 3. is able to conjure up a full interlinear translation of Beowulf almost without thinking about it, I also sort of wonder if it's really that big of a deal.

    I think Michael's on to something when he wonders about the loss of anyone who WANTS to understand canonical texts. But is that necessarily connected in any way with the loss of an ability to decipher obsolete orthography? I don't know. In this day and age, translations are pretty easy to come by, if there's really a need for them.

    Not that anyone needs my approval on this, but -- interesting topic!

  • Michael Straight said...

    Thanks, Alan. I read the articles, but somehow my mind latched on to the part about connecting to the past and missed how recent the discontinuity this creates is.

    I also don't understand - is this simply a written phenomenon (analogous to phonetic spelling in English)? Do the two kinds of writing sound the same when read aloud?

    And I'm guessing that the Chinese have some equivalent to Old English. Surely Chinese drifts about the same rate as European languages?

  • Alan Jacobs said...

    Yep, a word written in simplified characters will be pronounced the same as that word written in traditional characters. This is all a matter of reading: people who know only the simplified characters just don't know what they're looking at when they see traditional characters.

    Written Chinese has not changed nearly as much over the centuries as written English, though widely varying pronunciations have developed in different regions of China. Languages change at widely varying rates, with (as I understand it) Chinese changing unusually slowly and English unusually quickly, and something like Italian in the middle. (Today's Italians can read Dante without too much trouble, something that cannot be said for modern English speakers picking up a volume of Chaucer.) And then there's the whole matter of the different Chinese scripts used in different contexts. . . .

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