Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Alphabet Makers: China

Chinese is the oldest system in the world today, hardly changed in 4000 years. It is used by the world's largest nation--over a billion people.

Emperor Fu-Hsi (2852-2738 B.C.) was the legendary inventor of the Chinese script. His prewriting device, called the Eight Trigrams, was a combination of straight and broken lines, apparently taken from marks on a turtle shell. This may have replaced knotted cords which were used for record keeping.

About 2000 B.C., Chinese writing began as pictures. The earliest characters known (about 1400 B.C.) were on oracle bones. Some that were found still resembled the things they represented. But even then it was a full writing system, including representation of the spoken language.

There are reasons why the Chinese have not adopted an alphabet.

1. The difference between the dialects, or regionalects, is great. For instance, the word for man is pronounced ren, yen, nene, nyin, and len in different parts of China, but everywhere it is written . With an alphabet, Chinese would need to be written differently for each area. The single nonalphabetic writing system unites speakers of all Chinese dialects, and shows their common heritage.
2. The language is loaded with homophones. Like to, too, and two in English, most Chinese words sound like several, or even dozens, of other words. Since alphabets represent words by their sounds only, it is hard to distinguish words that sound alike. But the Chinese system is ideally suited to handle homophones, as the writing distinguishes both meaning and sound. Moreover, most spoken and written words are paired with others, further distinguishing homophones.
3. While an alphabet is ideal for writing words that have small changeable parts, like: write, wrote, unwritten, and writer's, Chinese words do not have changeable parts. The grammar works by adding and rearranging whole words, rather than parts.

Therefore, the logographic system, with unchanging symbols for whole words, fits Chinese well.

For the Chinese, calligraphy serves as a display of a person's moral and spiritual worth. In 3000 years, different materials and uses have created a variety of styles. The following are for the word fish (yú):

Sea script, drawn or engraved on bone, cast in bronze, stamped in clay, etc.

Standard brush script, used since the fourth century, is the regular script of today.

Running script, a cursive style for fast writing.

Grass script, a shorthand style allowing for personal expression.
Writing has traditionally been from top to bottom, the columns proceeding from right to left. But in China today the favored direction is horizontal, from left to right.

Movable type was invented in China in 1045 A.D., well ahead of Gutenberg -- however, due to the many symbols needed to write Chinese, it was impractical.

JAARS. 2009. "Alphabet Makers". JAARS. Posted: n/d. Available online: http://www.jaars.org/museum/alphabet/people/fu-hsi.htm

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