Serious Asian attempts to switch to a phonetic alphabet?

Has there ever been any serious attempt to implement a phonetic alphabet in any country which uses character-based writing? Would this even be feasable or desiriable? I guess what I’m asking is do the cultures that use this kind of writing acknowledge its drawbacks, or just get along fine with it?

To me, Oriental characters are to western letters what Roman numerals are to Arabic. Place value lets you multiply, divide etc. with ease. Symbols based on sounds (i.e. letters) gives you things like regular verb congugation, compound-words, and, once the alphabet has been mastered, the ability to read nearly any written word.

Japan developed a syllabic language based on earlier importation of Chinese characters. It’s in wide use today.
(search for hiragana)

Viet Nam used character-based writing until relatively recently. Portuguese missionaries worked out a system based on the Latin alphabet a s**tload of diacriticals. The old system has now almost completely disappeared.

Hangul (Korean) is phonetic, though it looks like picto/ideo/grams to many westerners. Waaay back the learned used 'grams, so the look carried over to Hangul

A lot of the reason Languages that formerly used Chinese characters to write their language switched, is because Chinese characters are really only suited to writing out Chinese languages. Japanese for instance is not even related, and since it has inflections, you cant really represent the language efficiently. It’s just more efficient to use a phonetic sytem, than one that represents each word with a glyph.

Chinese uses thousands of characters, but they recently simplified the characters in mainland China.

Japanese has two alphabets, one for native words and one for foreign words. They still use a lot of Chinese characters (2000 functional reading skills), even though it’s pourly suited to their language. A typical Japanese sentence often combines all three writing systems.

Korean has a very easy to use alphabet (I learned and memorized it in three hours a few days ago when I went there for vacations. They still use some Chinese characters, but not that many any more.

I think most other Asian countries use either the Roman alphabet or their own alphabet (like Thaï, which I tried to learn and failed miserably).

All in all, Chinese characters are kind of beautiful once you start being able to read them. You make up little story to understand each character. For example ‘light’ is made from a sun and a moon, ‘to open’ is a gate with two hands, ‘beauty’ is a big sheep…okay, sometimes you need to use your imagination a little.

Something like 25 years ago China developed a standard for romanizing Mandarin called Pinyin with the idea that it would gradually replace traditional characters. I think they have pretty much given up by now.

That is where you get Beijing instead of Pekin. It is the Pinyin form and westerners decided that since the Chinese didn’t use it we should.

Taiwan has a pretty effective phonetic system that school kids learn as an aid to memorizing the pronunciations of characters. It’s commonly referred to as the “bo po mo fo” system. Unlike pinyin, it can easily be used in conjunction with the original characters.

It seems to me that Chinese has so many homonyms that ideographs are a necessity to make sense of a written sentence.


Korean hangul is not only a serious phonetic alphabet, to me it’s one of the most elegant writing systems in the world, if not the most. The Vietnamese alphabet is purely phonetic, however strange it looks to us (it’s like that to deal with the fact that Vietnamese sounds are awfully strange to Westerners to begin with). And Thai, AFAIK, is purely phonetic as well, though I don’t know whether pictographic writing was ever used in Thailand/Siam.

As mentioned, Japanese kana (syllabic characters) are also phonetic, though they’re only one part of the Japanese writing system.

Just curious - how is tonality accomodated in these phonetic systems? Is there a symbol to actually indicate the inflection? Or is it inferred from context?

Usually the word can be inferred from context. But in pinyin you can write accents over the letters much like some European languages.

For some Chinese computer input systems, you type in the pinyin without the accents and the program presents a list of characters that could be represented by the word you typed. Then you choose a character from that list. I don’t think many people actually use pinyin for communicating.

When the French arrived in Cambodia, they unsuccessfully attempted to devise a system of representing Khmer sounds using roman letters. Unfortunately, to this day there is no official method, so it’s pretty much up to you to make up your own system which works for you. Even if you used the French method, you’d have to use a snotty French accent for it to work… no thanks.

Vietnamese writing uses diacritical marks to indicate tone, as does pinyin. Korean isn’t tone-dependent, so no such marks are necessary. Japanese uses tones the way English uses syllabic stress, so it’s not indicated in the writing system.

Actually Japanese doesn’t use tone, but pitch accent.

And on Khmer:

Khmer writing is an Indic style script. To me, it’s one of the most complext alpha syllabic scripts, because as with English orthography, the sounds of Khmer have changed since they started using their own alphabet, which has remained fairly constant.

A book I have that describes the writing system says the vowel system is very complex in Khmer (for instance, a naked glyph can have three different inherent vowels, while in other Indic scripts there is usually just one), and there still is no concensus as to how many sounds there actually are.

Hail Ants:

  1. Chinese (my area of limited expertise) doesn’t need letters for regular verb conjugation. It doesn’t conjugate the verbs, period. Much more efficient.

  2. Character-based languages have compound words.

Êé(shu)=book µê(dian)=store Êéµê(shudian)=bookstore.

This post used the Microsoft Chinese IME. You may need to set font encoding to Chinese Simplified and/or Chinese Language fonts to see everything. Romanization is included in parenthesis.

The devanagari script used in Sanskrit was very much phonetic and the languages which have evolved from Sanskrit certainly all have phonetic scripts also.
The interesting question to me is: the decision by the Chinese to develop a NON-phonetic, pictographic “alphabet”. What’s up with that?

Sanskrit was just the literary language in India for writing the religious scriptures. It wasn’t used for anything but religious purposes.The term for the languages people actually used is Prakrit. The situation is like Classical vs. Vulgar Latin. Classical Latin was literary, while Vulgar was used by the common people. Sanskrit was also used in countries where the people spoke languages not even related to it (like in Indonesia, Cambodia, Thailand, etc).

Chinese Characters ARE phonetic. Each glyph stands for a monosyllabic word. It is not purely pictographic (I’ve read the number of truely pictographic glyphs is around 200). It’s correctly termed logosyllabic. Since each glyph is a word in Chinese, it fits the language well. Chinese is monosyllabic, and isolating. Meaning it doesnt inflect like English does, so it doesnt need a purely phonetic alphabet to express the language in written form (Yue can correct anything i’ve missed or messed up :)).

John - question - which Chinese encoding are you using in your post? Just so I know if I’m getting the right characters when I set Chinese Encoding.

This is precisely why my wife (native English-speaker but near-native fluency in Mandarin) says ideograms make sense for Chinese. There are so many homophones that a phonetic alphabet (even one that indicated tone with accent marks) would still leave tons of ambiguity. Even spoken Chinese has to deal with the problem of making sure everyone’s on the same page, so to speak.

If anyone ever stops surfing the internet and cracks a book, the best I’ve ever seen for explaining how ideographic languages work and why they make some sense for certain languages is Michael Coe’s Breaking the Maya Code. It’s about Mayan (obviously), but he explains the very close parallels to Chinese.

In very general terms, MOST written Chinese characters contain two parts, one that indicates category of meaning (like, say, “relating to water”) and another part that gives a hint as to pronunciation. It’s still a bear, but not quite as horrific as many not acquainted with the language think.

This is a very inaccurate statement. Sanskrit was once the lingua franca of Aryan India - a living language used and understood by nearly ALL. For centuries Sanskrit was the ONLY acceptable lingo for use in written communication by the government and the upper classes etc. In addition, all of the poets and playwrights and singers etc. wrote in straight-up Sanskrit and their works were regularly performed in that tongue, even before the commoners. The term Prakrit is applied to linguistic developments that occur centuries after the heyday of Sanskrit.
But they still continued to coexist, and understanding one never automatically precludes understanding the other. A Prakrit sentence is to a Sanskrit sentence precisely as “Wah-zaaaauuh?” is to “What is up?”, or “Yum-Sane?” is to “Do you know what I am saying?”
The history of Sanskrit/Prakrit and their differences have been described by me myself, many times, on this very board … Still, the misconceptions continue.
None of this has anything to do with the OP, of course.