The Chinese Writing System (5)
HOW THE WRITING SYSTEM HAS MOULDED THE LANGUAGE
A writing system is a way of recording language on paper. In one sense, it doesn't matter what system is used, as long as it does the job. On the other hand, no writing system is neutral. Different systems embody different viewpoints and assumptions about language.
There are a number of ways, large and small, in which the characters have moulded the Chinese language. The following are some observations on the impact characters have had.
Chinese perceptions of their own language are highly coloured by the characters, which are psychologically one of the most significant linguistic units. Ordinary Chinese discuss or analyse their language in terms of characters (字 zì). The 'word', known to Chinese linguists as the 词 cí, is a relatively recent import from the West that is still very much overshadowed by the 字 zì. By concentrating attention on the individual syllable and its meaning, characters bring this level of language to the fore.
Were it not for the characters, words might be a more important unit of language in Chinese. For example, if 桌子 zhuō-zi 'table' were written zhuōz in Roman letters as some have suggested, people might gradually lose their consciousness that 桌子 consists of two separate elements.
On the other hand, it may be the perception that words are made up of independent 'building blocks' that keeps the language so flexible. For instance, the word for 'lift / elevator' is 电梯 diàn-tī 'electric ladder'. Compounds are created freely to indicate different kinds of lift: 客梯 kètī 'guest lift', 货梯 (貨梯) huòtī 'goods lift', 服务梯 (服務梯) fúwùtī 'service lift', etc. Colloquially, a lift is known as a 梯子 tīzi 'ladder'. The characters are at once a reflection of this flexibility and a factor that keeps it that way.
'Idioms': There is a very important class of expressions which relies heavily on the identity of characters as independent meaningful units. These are 成语 (成語) chéngyǔ, so-called 'idioms', which tend to be four-characters long. 'Idioms' range from common colloquial expressions to cultivated literary phrases. Some examples:
Such idioms often embody Classical grammar and vocabulary. In one sense they stand like islands of Classical Chinese in the modern language. Idioms run into the thousands and are a conspicuous feature of Chinese prose and conversation. They help give Chinese writing both its characteristic pithiness and, because of the element of hyperbole, its tendency to 'purple prose'. Idioms have been largely neglected by linguists, but if there is anything in Chinese that justifies giving precendence to 'characters' over 'words', it is the idioms, which are very difficult to grasp without an appreciation of the meaning of each individual character.
The characters encourage a terse written style. Because each character has a meaning, it is possible to use a single character in writing where a longer expression would be expected in speech.
A simple example is the sentence 我已经写完了 / 我已經寫完了 wǒ yǐjīng xiěwán le 'I have already finished writing', which can be quite intelligibly abbreviated to 我已写完 / 我已寫完 wǒ yǐ xiě wán. The word 已经 / 已經 yǐjīng 'already' is abbreviated to 已 yǐ. Although the syllable yǐ is potentially associated with many different meanings, 已 yǐ removes any ambiguity because it specifies quite clearly that 'already' is meant. The final 了 le, a modern-language colloquial particle indicating completed action, can also be omitted.
This kind of written style owes much to the terseness of Classical Chinese.
3. A Bridge to Tradition
The Chinese take their characters very seriously as a bridge to their own tradition. The written language facilitates access to several thousand years of literary tradition (although the key word is 'facilitates' -- reading Classical Chinese is not a snap for modern Chinese speakers, who require training to understand it).
The idioms noted above are a good example of the Classical influence that still permeates the language. Although Mandarin is supposed to be based on the spoken language of the north, it is still filled with literary expressions, many of them not immediately intelligible in speech. Characters keep this tradition alive. If they were abolished, arguably much of this tradition might gradually disappear.
To take a superficial example, Chinese has a number of expressions meaning 'known far and wide', e.g., 远近闻名 / 遠近聞名 yuǎn-jìn wén-míng 'far near hear name'. A relatively obscure example is 遐迩驰名 / 遐邇馳名 xià-ěr chí-míng 'far near spread name'. The first two characters, 遐迩 / 遐邇 xià-ěr, are literary forms only likely to be used by someone with a comfortable mastery of the written language. If Chinese were written in an alphabet, would this kind of expression survive?
Theoretically, every character that has ever been recorded in the Chinese tradition can be used in modern Chinese. Of course, many old characters are long-dead variants of current characters and are unlikely to be resurrected. On occasion, however, this theoretical possibility is put to startling use. Visit an exhibition of old bronzes and you may find yourself face-to-face with modernised versions of ancient characters referring to types of bronze vessel -- characters for which even the pronunciation has been lost!
Most new vocabulary, especially in technical fields, is created with characters. Creating new words is thus a visual rather than an aural exercise. Spoken intelligibility is secondary. Take this obscure but telling example:
This is an important function that is imputed to characters. It is dealt with separately on another page of this site.
Creating new characters is inevitably more involved than coming up with new spellings in an alphabet. First, the character must be invented, then it has to win widespread acceptance. This hinders the instantaneous deployment of new characters.
There are two areas where this may have had an impact: