Can Chinese Be Written In An Alphabet?

So say what you will about Chinese, there is no linguistic or practical reason that MSWC could not be written in an alphabet. In fact, if you marshal linguistic and, more importantly, pragmatic arguments, you could easily be persuaded that the Chinese should drop characters and adopt an alphabet. In my next article, I will explore why this is not only undesirable, and will surely not happen barring a giant calamity, but also why pinyin may be pressed into more service in the future as anauxiliaryscript.

Rnl zyun h shhu bozhng b de huysh, gj cng wi chxingu zhyng de d chngmin: Lkqing zngl koch gngzu hu, jn jizhe zi zhl kile g hu, mki f zngl, yng jng guw wiyun, yj 20 du wi b j lngdo xsh cnji.

The Soviets had a fairly enlightened policy on minority languages, and they introduced the Cyrillic script to these native speakers of Mandarin. An example of it would be recent newspaper article that discussed khuangdi Obama or president Obama in Dungan Chinese. (Of course, khuangdi is derived from hungd or emperor; son of Heaven. It now means president in Modern Dungan.) Dungan has its own novels, poetry, daily newspapers, etc, despite the crippling presence of homonyms in the language.

Now,Ive been giving the reasons against Roman script often cited by Chinese, and I have given arguments and evidence against them. However, the most damning evidence of all is the fact that Chinesehasbeen written in alphabets before: not once, not twice, but many times. In the Dunhuang manuscripts recovered from by Paul Pelliot and Aurel Stein, we have examples of written Chinese texts in Old Tibetan script (from when the Chinese garrisons of the Silk Road fell under Tibetan control for roughly 150 years and written Chinese was forgotten). We also have the example of Nvshu script, where women poets developed a working alphabet to write Baihua (the spoken language as a literary language) poetry. Finally, we have the Dungan language, a variant of the Gansu dialects of Mandarin now spoken in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.


English has a high number of homonyms; it also has clitics (i.e. suffixes that function like words), such as the s suffix found in possessives, plurals, and present-tense verbs which are phonetically identical but have radically different functions; however, native speakers easily understand He sees [z]Bobs [z] cars [z] despite the clitics being phonetically and graphically identical. Syntax and word class easily disambiguates which is which. Likewise, Chinese speakers have no trouble understanding what [de] means in spoken Mandarin, despite the supposed need for three different characters to represent three different functions:and .(Indeed, with online media such as WeChat or Chinese social media, most Chinese speakers write for all three and Chinese and foreign learners easily understand.) At the same time, Chinese writers were originally comfortable with a single character for (t), representing the third person regardless of gender.

How many homonyms can you find? When Chinese words are written as words, and not as a series of disconnected syllables, it is easy to read. In addition, a cursory scan will reveal that homonyms are not that common of an issue. People who claim that homonyms impede comprehension ignore two facts: 1) if homonyms were really a problem, spoken Chinese would be impossible (after all, they would confusing for both visual comprehension and auditory comprehension?) and 2) software for corpus studies (large-scale vocabulary studies of written languages) is now readily available and free, yet no studies are ever cited expressing a high frequency of homonyms impeding comprehension.

Since the early 20thcentury, however, there has been a drive to represent spoken Chinese in MSWC. Many intellectuals, including Yuen Ren Chao, advocated abolishing Chinese characters for MSWC and replacing it with Roman script. Anyone familiar with Chinese culture and history would know that by replacing Chinese with a Roman script, younger Chinese students would be cut off from their vast heritage found in Classical Chinese. However, with the rise of new technologies, many Chinese find it difficult to write Chinese, as their communication habits often involve typing in Chinese pinyin, a Roman alphabet designed for native speakers of Chinese.

Related:Gender Pronouns in Chinese: , ,

Related:A Simple Explanation Of Chinese Characters

Jason Cullen is an Applied Linguist currently working in Saudi Arabia. He has taught both ESOL and content courses to undergraduates, graduates, and post-graduates at universities in the USA, China, South Korea, Hungary, Ukraine, Saudi Arabia, and Oman. He has an academic interest in phonology and writing systems, with a special interest in Chinese and Chinese Englishes.

But how often do Chinese readers encounter homonyms? I went to the front page of theChina Daily(Chinese language edition) and chose the first article I saw. Here is the text of the opening paragraphs:

First of all, Chinese writing for thousands of years was based on ancient forms, mostly the Confucian classics. This variety, (often called Classical or Literary Chinese in English), was never meant to be a spoken language. If you find a random piece of prose or poetry that isnt anthologized in high school textbooks and read it aloud to a well-educated Chinese, they will be hard-pressed to understand when its spoken. Likewise, Yuen Ren Chao, one of Chinas most famous linguists, wrote his now-famous Lion-Eating Poet poem (in the article here) to illustrate the impossibility of expressing either a spoken language or employing a Roman script in Classical Chinese. But of course, Classical Chinese is a completely different language than MSWC, so its limitations are only relevant when its quoted stylistically.

What people often forget is that while Chinese employs a syllabic script, spoken Mandarin (and MSWC) ismostly composed of compound nouns(e.g. ) and agglutinated complexes (e.g. ). As syllables are piled up in words and phrases, meaning is easily read and homonymy is disambiguated. In addition, context and word order make it easy to read or understand spoken homonyms, just as English speakers have no trouble with words liketo, too, two, 2(and do not forget that English has at least two tos, one a preposition for nouns and one a preposition for infinitives) orsun v. sonand many, many more. Native speakers of Mandarin automatically parse language into words, phrases, and clauses; the writing system doesnt have to do all the work.

You will often hear Chinese teachers claim that Modern Standard Written Chinesecannot be written with an alphabet. In fact, an article on this blog titledWhy There Is No Chinese Alphabetmakes some arguments. But is there any truth to this claim?

The only linguistic argument that zealots have against alphabet scripts is the high frequency of homophones in Chinese. While its true that the large number of homophones makes Classical Chinese difficult to understand, MSWC is based on Mandarin. If homophones were truly an impediment to understanding, homophones would cause problems in the spoken language. Instead, its a delightful component in an old-style comedy routine from Beijing, (xing sheng) or crosstalk.

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