Why didn't China adopt an alphabet?

Basically, yeah. The poor could not read. The communist party raised the literacy rate of the public by quite a bit, actually.

There is this really neat photo-book by a Chinese artist. He filled it with pictures of his Mom and Dad, two rather poor people who were amazingly loving, but totally uneducated. He shows his Mom standing by a sign with the only Chinese character she knew(I think it was “go” or “stop” or something). Touching book, too.

Japan is still finding its balance, back maybe 60-70 years ago almost everything was the good ol’ semantic phonetic Chinese characters, even (some) particles. Then after the reform there were very few Kanji until they started building them up again. Nowadays there’s a split between words that you always use Kanji, words where you use Kanji if you feel like it (it’s perfectly acceptable to write “under” as した or 下, and in fact my typing mechanism defaults to the former and requires explicit instruction to write the Kanji), and words that have been bastardized to katakana because it’s kewl and edgy d00d.

One point is that all the Chinese languages (and it is a mistake to call them dialects although they are related, perhaps like all the Romance languages) are written the same. I personally knew a couple of students who could not talk to each other but could write notes.

A more interesting question is why Japanese has not adopted an alphabetic script. They have one that is used for adding declensions (which Chinese languages lack) and a second one for foreign words and they could readily adopt it for everything. They are actually syllabaries, but close enough. And there is no spread of dialects that makes the Chinese system worth something.

See here

The various Chinese dialects are in fact different languages and not mutually intelligible. They don’t “write the same”. The commonly used written form is Mandarin. Modern Chinese who don’t use Mandarin colloquially can still mostly read and write it.

Sadly, I doubt this myth will ever be debunked and relegated to the trash-heap; it savors too much of the ‘Mystery of the Orient’ which still has intrigue to separate the marks from their money.

I suppose dealing with foreign words and pronunciations would be one reason to evolve to syllabic/alphabetic/abjad. From constructs the equivalent of “eye rack” for Iraq, the short simple words start to become syllables to be used to build bigger words. I suppose one issue is that China was isolated and dominant enough in its area that it did not have to deal with a lot of imported words. Egypt, IIRC, was already evolving toward syllabic heiroglyphics, for proper names etc.

Also - doesn’t Chinese have multiple words with the same pronunciation, except for inflection - making the “word-to-syllable” evolution more complicated; plus the inflection issue complicates writing by syllable, since each syllable/inflection would require a different symbol.

Common people in pre-industrial times would have had very little need to learn the characters for “beer” or “turtle” because the poor masses in those times for the most part never travelled much more than a few miles from where they were born. They know where the “beer”, “turtle” and anything else that might affect their lives are already.

This is a difficult thing to comprehend for someone who lives in a modern country. I’ve met people in their 60s and 70s in rural China who had basically never left their village, ever. They were astonished and very impressed by the fact that I (as a young child) had been to the “capital” town of their local county, which would have been maybe 50-100 km away. This was in the mid 1980s.

Not from simplified abominations like those (especially the first).

Most modern Abjads are “impure” IOW they now contain a few vowel characters and/or vowel diacritics. Arabic is a good example of this, as it does have a vowel (or two) in the mix and it also has optional (used only by kids) markings indicating vowels.

When I wrote that we should be using a “pointed Abjad”, I was basically referring to cutting out all vowels and replacing them with diacritics. I like this more “streamlined” script better then an Alphabet.

Example minus diacritics (“pure” Abjad):
th qck brwn fx jmpd vr th lz dg.

The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.


There were two pushes for adopting romanization in Japan: First, in the Meiji period as Japan was rapidly modernizing and the decision was made to make written Japanese similar to contemporary spoken Japanese. Second, during the Allied Occupation following WW2.

It hasn’t happened because kanji provide a number of perceived benefits. The most significant of these, IMHO, is that kanji play a vital role in allowing easy distinction to be made between the massive number of homonyms Japanese has as a result of absorbing much of its words from Chinese, a language using a far more diverse set of sounds. I have a harder time reading books written for young children (written only in one of the syllabaries) than I do standard Japanese texts and have heard similar comments from others. Others perceived benefits include being able to guess the meaning of words you don’t know, aesthetic attractiveness, tradition, etc.

And on the flip side, what benefit is to be gained from abandoning kanji? Japan has a high level of literacy and I don’t think Japanese classes don’t take up more time in the Japanese curriculum than English classes do in the US. It would make things easier for some foreigners, I guess, but I don’t think that’s a major concern for the Japanese.

If I remember my Japanese linguistics class correctly, the number of kanji in common usage steadily decreased until the introduction of computers when it began increasing. Now that you can use the kanji for words like 挨拶 or 薔薇 without actually having to write them yourself, it’s so much easier! (Good thing, too… since the introduction of computers have led Japanese to forget how to write even common words…)

Most Chinese single-character words have dozens of homophones. With the exact same tones. There are hardly any Chinese characters without plenty of homophones. This is why writing Chinese in only Pinyin would be unworkable. The characters perform the essential function of disambiguating all the homophones. This is also why in modern Chinese words are so often compounds of two characters. Saying each concept as a pair of characters instead of just one helps disambiguate homophones when hearing spoken Chinese. But also sometimes to aid comprehension of spoken Chinese, they’ll draw the intended character with a fingertip in the air or on the hand. Like in English we’d hold up 2 fingers to clarify that we mean two, not to or too.

Ancient Chinese didn’t have so many homophones, because there was more variety in the way sounds could be combined into words. Like in English. There was more variety of allowable consonant combinations that could come at the beginning and end of syllables, including consonant clusters. As the languages evolved over time, the rules for where sounds could occur in syllables became much more restrictive, so that consonant clusters could not exist any more, and in Mandarin only two consonant sounds are allowed at the ends of syllables: /n/ and /ŋ/. This made lots of different words collapse into homophones. The number of allowed syllables is more restrictive in Mandarin than in Cantonese, which has several more consonants available for syllable-final position. However, Pinyin is specifically designed for Mandarin and would not work for Cantonese.

Edit: Writing tones in Pinyin is not an issue, because the tones are indicated with diacritics. E.g. á ā ă à. This is much more intuitive than Hmong, which writes tones with silent letters, or Zhuang which indicates them with inline numerals.

:smack: Acutally, Zhuang now writes tones with silent letters too.

And English is spelled non-phonetically primarily because English pronunciation changed radically during the Middle Ages while spelling was becoming standardized. I understand that if you try to pronounce English phonetically, you can make yourself sound Medieval. We have a shot at reading Medieval documents today that we wouldn’t be able to read had our grandparents decided to change English spelling to more closely match pronunciation.

Johanna – I was going to make that argument with Japanese too, but what do you say about this conjecture? Chinese works perfectly well as a spoken language (obviously), so clearly context is more than enough to disambiguate in most cases. Sure you can ask people to clarify in spoken speech, but I somehow doubt most Chinese conversations are dominated by people getting confused and asking for clarification.

I’ll guess that most of the homonyms are primarily used in writing rather than speech, as is the case in Japanese.

I can’t figure out what this means.

The distances involved are greater, but I know people who live in Saragossa and have spent every single vacation of their lives in Salou with shopping trips to Barcelona; their honeymoons were trips to Salou or, for the more adventurous, Barcelona (I’m talking about more than 100 people, not just one family, and I don’t even know many people from Saragossa). They never bother visit other towns and villages nearby; they’ve never been to Utebo or Sitges. As for their two towns themselves, in each of them they know the zone where they live and one or two shopping areas; forget about asking them about museums or cultural activities. This is in 2012… if those people hadn’t had cars and lived in a time in which vacations are something you can turn into a complete rut, they wouldn’t even have gone shopping downtown.

And since nobody else has raised the nitpick, Chinese characters are not pictographs; they’re ideograms (though they probably developed from pictographs). You can’t look at a character and say “Oh, that’s a picture of a such-and-such”, though if you already know what it means you might be able to see how it developed from such a picture.