If Chinese were phonetic

Yesterday The New Yorker published an essay entitled “Bad Character” (www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/05/16/if-chinese-were-phonetic) by the brilliant speculative fiction writer Ted Chiang. Chiang’s fiction often hinges on a deep appreciation for the complexities of foreign languages (both human and alien), and in this piece he takes on what many believe to be the earth’s greatest exophonic writing system, Chinese characters. Chiang lays out a case for why Chinese characters can be seen as a historical hindrance to literacy, and he briefly ponders what the world would have been like had China adopted an alphabetic script like Bopomofo or Pinyin early on. He ends the piece by pointing out how the “non-phonetic” nature of characters enabled a limited but significant degree of legibility to ancient writings that far surpasses those written in the phonetic orthographies of other ancient languages.  While I think it is almost always good news when mainstream media pays attention to issues of language, phonology, or orthography,  it is disheartening to see another popular work painting Chinese characters as a non-phonetic writing system.

Those of us who have had an opportunity to learn more about Chinese linguistics know that there are phonetically oriented categories of characters like phonetic loans (假借) or more importantly phono-semantic compounds (形聲) which constitute over 90% of characters. But more importantly the public has little if any knowledge about the rime table(韻書)culture where characters were used as a phonetic script by parsing their corresponding speech sounds into front and back (top and bottom) components or what we can roughly consider their initial consonant and tonally categorized vowel + finals (a method known as fanqie, 反切). If the definition of a phonetic script comes down to its ability to use graphemes (written symbols) to correspond to phonemes, then this method employed in well-known works like the  “Book of Mirror Rimes” (韵镜) should qualify.  Of course, Chiang and countless others would be right to point out that special uses of characters in dictionaries or etymological arguments like those above fall far short of a true alphabetic orthography. Still after centuries of perpetuating Chinese as the quintessential “other” of global writing systems, it would be nice to see a more nuanced acknowledgement of the phonetic vectors of Sinophone scripts.

For MCLC list readers interested in the history, or future of Chinese characters as a phonetic script, I would invite you to check out 拼英 Pinying also called SinoEnglish, my latest experiment in Sinophonic writing. The prototype of this project is called “The English Book of Mirror Rimes, 英韵镜,” which is a reproduction of the 12th century rime tables, but this time the tables phonetically represent English rather than Chinese. I used a similar system of splicing Chinese character sounds (反切) and invented four new characters to fill in the missing sounds. While I’m working on the woodblock press version of this work, the digital version is now available and free to download at the Apple app store:

English: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/id1003372668

Chinese: https://itunes.apple.com/cn/app/id1003372668

Here is the app’s website www.pinyingapp.com.cn which includes links to my TEDx talks on the topic (English version of the site links to Youtube, and Chinese version to Youku).

The goal of the digital version is less conceptual than practical—I wanted to create an embodiment that would prove the viability of a Chinese-script-based phonetic writing system that works as well or better than those based on Romanization. The Pinying app teaches one how to parse character sounds (反切) through interactive 3D learning environments and the free version provides 500 preloaded interactive word sound maps (120,000 maps in the paid version of the app) that show how each word can be re-segmented through the 39 parsed Chinese characters into precise American English sound sequences. To re-enforce the system, there are interactive exercise that test how well you have adapted to the system and shares your results via social media. The goal of this portion of my project is to show how Chinese characters can usefully and intuitively “spell” other languages beyond those of the Sinophone family starting with English. My hope is that such work will help break down the false dichotomies that hold Chinese characters apart from other writing systems. It turns out that Chinese characters can be both “ideographic” and “phonetic” depending on how they are employed (which is determined by their use values) and with the advent of algorithmically driven, digital/mobile learning platforms like that of Pinying, I hope to show that we (human beings) have only just begun to discover what Chinese characters are capable of. Or such is my hypothesis.

Jonathan Stalling, University of Oklahoma

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